Can New Water Discoveries Save East Africa?


East Africa sees almost year-round skirmishes over water and grazing rights among the pastoral groups that live along the Ethiopia-Kenya and South Sudan–Central African Republic borders.

By Brahma Chellaney, Foreign Affairs, April (2014)

Water scarcity is becoming the defining international crisis of the twenty-first century. Water conflicts rage across the world as communities struggle to secure clean, reliable supply One of the world’s most water-stressed regions is East Africa.  Overexploitation of water resources there has been compounded by declining snowpacks on Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, which have shrunk since the late 1980s due to global warming.  Meanwhile, Lake Turkana — the world’s largest perennial desert lake — has largely disappeared from Ethiopian territory, retreating south into Kenya.


An armed Turkana man walks towards the shores of Lake Turkana, October 12, 2013. (Siegfried Modola / Courtesy Reuters)

In this light, the discovery of two significant aquifers in the largely arid Kenya by a Japanese-financed UNESCO project has been hailed as a potential game changer. The first, the Lotikipi Basin Aquifer, is situated just west of Lake Turkana. The second, the smaller Lodwar Basin Aquifer, is near Lodwar, the capital of Turkana county. The aquifers were discovered by a French firm, Radar Technologies International (RTI), using a space-based exploration technology called WATEX that was originally designed to reveal mineral deposits. The company blended satellite and radar imagery with geographical surveys and seismic data to detect moisture. Subsequent drilling by UNESCO confirmed the presence of aquifers. Three other suspected aquifers in the region have yet to be confirmed through drilling.

For parched and economically backward Turkana, more than one-third of whose residents are malnourished, the discovery of major groundwater reserves is a godsend. Not only will they provide lifesaving water, they will spur agricultural and hydrocarbon development and improve the lives of the impoverished residents in this conflict-ridden region, which extends from Kenya into the borderlands of Ethiopia and South Sudan. Turkana boasts hydrocarbon deposits.

Since the new water can be piped to other regions as well, the aquifer finds are good news for Kenya as a whole. Whereas global per-capita freshwater availability averages slightly above 6,000 cubic meters per year, in Kenya it has fallen well below the international water-poverty threshold of 1,000 cubic meters. Two-fifths of the country’s population thus lacks access to safe drinking water. In addition, more than half do not have adequate sanitation, and water scarcity acts as a serious constraint on socioeconomic development and environmental protection.

The water problem, of course, extends beyond Kenya’s borders, as highlighted by the current humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa wrought by prolonged drought and erratic rain patterns. Internal conflicts have exacerbated water and food crises. For example, with political conflict disrupting South Sudan fragile, agriculture-based economy, the country faces the specter of Africa’s worst starvation since the 1980s. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently warned of increased drought stress in the parched regions of Africa, such as East Africa.

East Africa sees almost year-round skirmishes over water and grazing rights among the pastoral groups that live along the Ethiopia-Kenya border and the South Sudan-Central African Republic border. As freshwater bodies dry up or recede, pastoralists have to search more widely for water and grazing land, bringing them in conflict with other herdsmen doing the same. Lake Turkana, for example, has progressively retreated from Ethiopia, and Ethiopian Dassanech tribes have moved further south with the water’s edge into Kenyan Turkana territory. In recent years, anger and frustration between the two groups has boiled over into recurrent armed clashes, aggravating military tensions between Kenya and Ethiopia.

More broadly, regional tensions between tribes and ethnic groups have been exacerbated by the hundreds of thousands of water refugees who have streamed across provincial and international frontiers since 2011 alone. For example, a severe drought and famine in 2011 forced tens of thousands to flee southern Somalia for Kenya and Ethiopia, where many still remain camped. In recent months, more than a quarter million South Sudanese have fled to neighboring countries and 30,000 Turkana pastoralists have taken their cattle to Uganda. The flow of thirsty refugees has stoked political and tribal tensions, and put a strain on their host governments.

The region is producing not only parched refugees, who seek to relocate far from their native villages, but also water warriors. Criminal gangs and warlords control many wells. Their guards have opened fire on thirsty villagers for trying to withdraw water. The use of such tactics in water-scarce areas means that the weakest and the poorest are the worst hit.

Against this grim reality, the aquifer finds in northern Kenya seem like a beacon of hope. The firm RTI estimates that its largest discovery — the Lotikipi aquifer — holds at least 250 billion cubic meters of water, which is equivalent in volume to Lake Turkana’s current capacity. It also contends that the aquifer has an impressive annual recharge rate of 3.4 billion cubic meters, which is the amount of water naturally replenished by rain and thus open to sustainable human extraction.

However, finding this hidden water wealth is just the first step. Only a detailed scientific study can reliably determine both the quantity and quality of the water underground. An independent study will also be needed to determine the real replenishment rate, a critical piece of information if Kenya is to sustainably exploit its new groundwater reserves. Reckless extraction could leave little water for future generations.

Further, even if RTI’s estimates are validated by further study, Lotikipi’s reserves are not as large as media reports (which routinely use adjectives such as “huge” and “massive”) have made them out to be. The estimated total reserves can meet the needs of the Turkana region’s residents for no more than 70 years. And the RTI-assessed recharge rate is equivalent to about two times the yearly water use of a large city such as Chicago or London. But there are 43 million people in Kenya, including about a million in Turkana, currently battling a year-long drought. In comparison to Lotikipi’s supposed reserves of 250 billion cubic meters, North Africa’s mammoth Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System — shared by Chad, Libya, Sudan, and Egypt — holds as much as 540,000 billion cubic meters, although the extractable quantity is estimated to be about 15,340 billion cubic meters.

Lotikipi’s reserves thus need to be exploited judiciously — an onerous challenge in a drought-ravaged region. The water must be used to douse the resource wars in Turkana. Developing agriculture in the region — which is currently nonexistent — and employing people to work on new farms could also help. Yet given the raging conflicts in the region, building the infrastructure to tap Lotikipi’s resources and then safeguard it will be no easy task.

One concern is that the real beneficiaries of the aquifer finds may not be the residents of Turkana, Kenya’s least-developed region, but the better-off Kenyans to the south. To prevent that, Kenya needs better governance and more equitable regional development.  Otherwise, it could breed internal conflict as has happened in some resource-rich regions of Africa. The continent has more recently become the scene of a resource-related Great Game among world powers seeking to extract resources in mineral-rich areas.

With the aquifer finds, Turkana now boasts both water and oil resources. Yet the challenges in this backwater mirror the larger challenges in Africa — how to prudently manage water and mineral resources and integrate them with development so that local communities, not outsiders, actually benefit.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY is a geostrategist and the author of Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013) and Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Georgetown University Press), which won the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Book Award.

(c) Foreign Affairs, 2014.

Why the U.S. must cut Afghanistan loose



Special to The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of Water, Peace and War.

Afghanistan’s presidential election, now apparently headed for a runoff stage, will mark the first peaceful transition of power in the history of that unfortunate country, ravaged by endless war since 1979. Displaying courage in the face of adversity, Afghans braved Taliban attacks and threats to vote in large numbers on April 5.

After almost 35 years of bloodletting, Afghans are desperate for peace. President Hamid Karzai’s successor will have his work cut out for him, including promoting national reconciliation by building bridges among the country’s disparate ethnic and political groups; strengthening the fledgling, multiethnic national army; and ensuring free and fair parliamentary elections next year.

The role of external players, however, overshadows these internal dynamics. Two external factors will significantly influence Afghanistan’s political and security transition: the likely post-2014 role of U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces; and interference by Pakistan, which still harbours militant sanctuaries and the command-and-control structure for Afghan insurgency.

Pakistani interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs can only be made to stop if U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration finally makes that a condition for continuing its generous aid to cash-strapped Pakistan – a remote prospect.

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, has made a U-turn on the U.S. and NATO military presence in Afghanistan and is now seeking bases there for a virtually unlimited period. He had declared in Cairo in 2009, “We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there.” But in a change of heart, he now wants bases there to house a fairly sizable U.S.-led NATO force armed with the authority to “conduct combat operations.”

The U.S. President is under political attack at home for having failed to persuade Mr. Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement, which is to provide the legal basis for keeping U.S. bases. The fact that the U.S. left no residual forces in Iraq when it ended its decade-long occupation of that country has made the appeal particularly strong to maintain bases in Afghanistan, where America is seeking to terminate the longest war in its history.

Although Kabul and Washington have finalized the terms of the bilateral agreement, Mr. Karzai withstood intense U.S. pressure to sign, leaving that critical decision to his successor. In truth, Mr. Karzai was afraid that if he did, he could go down in Afghan history as the second Shah Shuja. A puppet ruler installed by the British in 1839, Shah Shuja was deposed and assassinated three years later, but not before precipitating the First Anglo-Afghan War.

Mr. Obama now has little choice but to wait and try to persuade the next Afghan president to sign the accord. He has not, however, grasped the main reason why his county’s war has foundered – failure to reconcile military and political objectives. From the time it invaded in 2001, America pursued a military surge in Afghanistan, but an aid surge to the next-door country harbouring terrorist havens and the “Quetta Shura,” as the Afghan Taliban leadership there is known. The war was made unwinnable by Washington’s own refusal to target Pakistan for actively abetting elements killing or maiming U.S. troops.

Terrorism and insurgency have never been defeated in any country without choking transboundary sustenance and support. Afghans have borne the brunt from two fronts – U.S. military intervention and Pakistan’s use of surrogate militias.

Mr. Obama’s basing strategy could presage a shift from a full-fledged war to a low-intensity war, but without fixing the incongruous duality in American policy. Indeed, a smaller U.S. force in Afghanistan would only increase Washington’s imperative to mollycoddle Pakistani generals and cut a deal with the Quetta Shura in order to secure its bases.

Washington plans to gift Pakistan its surplus military hardware in Afghanistan, including several hundred mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles. It has also agreed to taper off drone strikes in Pakistan.

Even more revealing is what the drones have not targeted. To preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, the U.S. has not carried out a single air, drone or ground attack against its leadership, which is ensconced in Pakistan’s sprawling Baluchistan province. U.S. drone strikes have been restricted to the Pakistani tribal region to the north, Waziristan, where they have targeted the Pakistani Taliban – the nemesis of the Pakistani military.

To make matters worse, the U.S. plans to start significantly cutting aid to Kabul beginning next year, which threatens to undermine Afghan security forces, a key part of keeping the Afghan Taliban at bay.

Last May, Mr. Obama recalled the warning of James Madison, America’s fourth president: that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Yet he now seeks a long-term military engagement in Afghanistan, which is good news for the Pakistani generals but not for U.S., Afghan or regional interests.

Admittedly, there are no good options. But an indefinite role for foreign forces would be the equivalent of administering the same medicine that has seriously worsened the patient’s condition.

It is past time for Afghanistan to be in charge of its own security and destiny. Outside assistance should be limited to strengthening the Kabul government’s hand.

The coming era of water wars


Upstream hydro-hegemony threatens to trigger downstream upheaval

By Brahma Chellaney, The Washington Times

3_132014_b4-chell-gun-faucet8201_s640x785There is a tongue-in-cheek saying in America — attributed to Mark Twain, who lived through the early phase of the California water wars — that “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”

It highlights the consequences, even if somewhat apocryphally, as ever-scarcer water resources create a parched world. California currently is suffering under its worst drought of the modern era.

Adequate availability of water, food and energy is critical to global security. Water, the sustainer of life and livelihoods, is already the world’s most exploited natural resource.

With nature’s freshwater renewable capacity lagging behind humanity’s current rate of utilization, tomorrow’s water is being used to meet today’s need.

Consequently, the resources of shared rivers, aquifers and lakes have become the target of rival appropriation plans. Securing a larger portion of the shared water has fostered increasing competition between countries and provinces.

Efforts by some countries to turn transnational water resources into an instrument of power has encouraged a dam-building race and prompted growing calls for the United Nations to make water a key security concern.

More ominously, the struggle for water is exacerbating impacts on the earth’s ecosystems. Humanity is altering freshwater and other ecosystems more rapidly than its own scientific understanding of the implications of such change.

Degradation of water resources has resulted in aquatic ecosystems losing half of their biodiversity since just the mid-1970s. Groundwater depletion, for its part, is affecting natural streamflows, groundwater-fed wetlands and lakes, and related ecosystems.

The future of human civilization hinges on sustainable development. If resources like water are degraded and depleted, environmental refugees will follow.

Sanaa in Yemen risks becoming the first capital city to run out of water. If Bangladesh bears the main impact of China’s damming of River Brahmaputra, the resulting exodus of thirsty refugees will compound India’s security challenges.

Internal resource conflicts are often camouflaged as civil wars. Sudan’s Darfur conflict, for example, arose from water and grassland scarcity.

Interstate water wars in a political and economic sense are being waged in several regions, including by building dams on international rivers and by resorting to coercive diplomacy to prevent such construction.

Examples include China’s frenetic upstream dam building in its borderlands, and downriver Egypt’s threats of military reprisals against the ongoing Ethiopian construction of a large dam on the Blue Nile.

Upstream Turkey, inspired by China’s strengthening hydro-hegemony, is accelerating its diversion of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This will exacerbate water stress in the two violence-torn, downriver states of Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Israel, with its control of the water-rich Golan Heights and the West Bank aquifers, has leveraged its role as water supplier to Palestinians and Jordanians.

The yearly global economic losses from water shortages are conservatively estimated at $260 billion.

Water-stressed South Korea is encouraging its corporate giants to produce water-intensive items — from food to steel — for the home market in overseas lands. This strategy has created a grass-roots backlash against South Korean firms in Madagascar and India’s Odisha state.

A report reflecting the joint judgment of U.S. intelligence agencies has warned that the use of water as a weapon of war or a tool of terrorism would become more likely in the next decade.

Water is a renewable but finite resource. Unlike mineral ores, fossils fuels and resources from the biosphere such as fish and timber, water (unless bottled) is not a globally traded commodity. The human population has doubled since 1970 alone, though, while the global economy has grown even faster.

Consumption growth, however, is the single biggest driver of water stress. Rising incomes, for example, have promoted changing diets, especially a greater intake of meat, whose production is notoriously water-intensive.

In China, South Korea and Southeast Asia, traditional diets have been transformed in the past generation alone, becoming much meatier.

If the world stopped diverting food to feed livestock and produce biofuels, it could not only abolish hunger, but also feed a population larger by four billion, according to a University of Minnesota study.

Compounding the diet-change impacts on the global water situation is the increasing body-mass index of humans in recent decades, with the prevalence of obesity doubling since the 1980s.

Obesity rates in important economies now range from 33 percent in the United States and 26.9 percent in Britain to 5.7 percent in China and 1.9 percent in India.

Heavier citizens make heavier demands on natural resources, especially water and energy. They also cause much greater greenhouse-gas emissions through their bigger food and transport needs.

A study published in the British journal BMC Public Health found that if the rest of the world had the same average body-mass index as the United States, it would be equivalent to adding nearly an extra billion people to the global population, with major implications for the world’s water situation.

The issue thus isn’t just about how many mouths there are to feed, but also about how much excess body fat there is on the planet.

The point to note is that a net population increase usually translates into greater human capital to create innovations, power economic growth and support the elderly, but a net increase in body weight only contributes to state liability and greater water stress.

Preventing water wars demands rules-based cooperation, water-sharing and dispute-settlement mechanisms.

However, most of the world’s transnational basins lack any cooperative arrangement, and there is still no international water law in force. Worse, unilateralist appropriation of shared water resources is endemic where autocrats rule.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

© Washington Times, 2014

International law only applies when it suits the strong


Brahma Chellaney, The National

PointThe looming cold war triggered by the US-supported putsch in Kiev that deposed Ukraine’s constitutional order and by Russia’s muscular riposte, including annexing Crimea, underscores the major powers’ unilateralist approach to international law.

A just, rules-based global order has long been touted by powerful states as essential for international peace and security. Yet there is a long history of world powers flouting international law while using it against other states.

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s action in annexing Crimea violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity, even though it followed a referendum in that historically Russian region, where the majority of residents indisputably lean toward Russia. The annexation represents a flagrant breach of international law.

This, however, cannot obscure the fact that the US and Nato have repeatedly shown contempt for international law. There’s a long list just for the past 15 years – the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without UN Security Council mandates, the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime through aerial bombardment, the aiding of a still-raging bloody insurrection in Syria, and renditions and torture of terror suspects. The US has refused to join a host of critical international treaties – ranging from the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to the 1998 International Criminal Court Statute. Even its National Security Agency’s Orwellian surveillance policy mocks international law.

In this light, is it any surprise that the US’s moral authority and international standing have eroded?

Washington openly backed the violent street protesters who in February toppled Ukraine’s democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovich. This has set a dangerous precedent. No democracy can be safe if armed men are allowed to spearhead street protests against the constitutional authority.

The Ukraine case illustrates the international law of convenience. Mr Putin has cynically justified his action in the name of his “responsibility to protect”, the very moral (not legal) principle US president Barack Obama invoked to rationalise Qaddafi’s overthrow.

To be sure, the Ukraine crisis is rooted in Nato expansion and US-led moves to take Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence. After Nato’s 1949 birth, its first secretary general, Lord Ismay, admitted the organisation’s purpose was to keep “the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. Now Nato’s sole aim is to stay relevant in spite of the Cold War’s end, even if that means playing up the Russian threat.

The new developments are actually a geopolitical windfall for another power that serves as a prime example of a unilateralist approach to international relations – China, which still hews to Mao Zedong’s belief that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun”.

China’s growing geopolitical heft has emboldened its muscle-flexing and territorial nibbling in Asia. China rejects some of the same treaties the US has declined to join, including the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, which lays down rules on the shared resources of transnational rivers, lakes and aquifers.

China has established a hydro-supremacy unparalleled in the world by annexing the starting places of Asia’s major international rivers – the Tibetan plateau and Xinjiang – and working to reengineer their cross-border flows. Yet China – the source of transboundary river flows to more countries than any other hydro-hegemon – rejects the concept of water sharing and refuses to enter into any treaties.

China remains territorially a revolutionary power bent on upending the status quo in Asia. Yet, with both Mr Obama and Mr Putin actively seeking to woo China, the likely big winner from the turn of events is the country that has been expanding its borders ever since it came under Communist rule in 1949. That China continues to press steadily outward was illustrated by its recent establishment of an air-defence zone extending to islands controlled by Japan and South Korea.

China’s geopolitical gains will solidify if the US jettisons – as appears likely – its post-Cold War policy of seeking to influence Russia’s conduct through engagement and integration. The US is closing the door to Russian accession to the OECD and effectively ousting Russia from the G8 by making it the G7 again – an action that can only accelerate that institution’s crawling irrelevance in international relations.

Punishing Moscow risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that promotes the re-emergence of a czarist Russia and segregates states along a new bipolar axis.

Given the innately self-calculating and self-aggrandising human nature, strong nations have always sought to gain dominance over the weak. New technologies and reduced transport costs have made the world increasingly interdependent and generated many new treaties and rules. Yet the more the world has changed, the more it has remained the same in one aspect – the strong still dominate the weak.

While the weak remain meek, power respects strength. Had Crimea been seized by a smaller power, the US by now would have assembled a “coalition of the willing” to launch a military attack on the occupier. But because the occupier in this case is a country armed with nuclear weapons, Mr Obama has ruled out any US military involvement.

The major powers assert one set of rules for themselves and a different set for other states, as if international law were only for the weak.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author

(c) The National, 2014.

An Afghan Afghanistan


(A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.)

As it braces for its upcoming presidential election, Afghanistan finds itself at another critical juncture, with its unity and territorial integrity at stake after 35 years of relentless war. Can Afghanistan finally escape the cycle of militancy and foreign intervention that has plagued it for more than three decades?

Two key questions are shaping discussions about Afghanistan’s post-2014 trajectory. The first concerns the extent to which Pakistan will interfere in Afghan affairs, such as by aiding and abetting the Afghan Taliban and its main allies, including the Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s militia. This will depend on whether the United States conditions its generous aid to cash-strapped Pakistan on noninterference in Afghanistan.

The second question is whether US-led NATO forces will continue to play any role in Afghanistan. It is no secret that US President Barack Obama wants to maintain an American military presence in the country – a reversal of his declaration in 2009 that the US sought no military bases there.

Indeed, for several months, the US has been involved in painstaking negotiations with the Afghan government to conclude a bilateral security agreement that would enable the US to maintain bases in Afghanistan virtually indefinitely. What was supposed to be an endgame for Afghanistan has turned into a new game over America’s basing strategy.

But, despite having finalized the terms of the agreement, Obama failed to persuade Afghanistan’s outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, to sign it. That means that America’s role in the country can be settled only after the new Afghan president assumes office in May.

And the election’s outcome is far from certain. While all eight Afghan presidential candidates claim to support the security accord, this may offer little comfort to the US, given that most of the candidates have directly opposed US interests in the past – not to mention that several of them are former or current warlords.

Moreover, there remains the question of how a residual American-led force, even if sizable, could make a difference in Afghanistan, given that a much larger force failed to secure a clear victory over the past 13 years. Obama has offered no answer.

Nonetheless, there is strong bipartisan support in the US for maintaining military bases in Afghanistan, as a means of projecting hard power, and the increasingly charged confrontation between the US and Russia over Ukraine has boosted that support considerably. In fact, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explicitly linked Russia’s actions in Ukraine with “talk of withdrawal from Afghanistan, whether the security situation warrants it or not.”

According to Rice, anything less than a residual force of 10,000 American troops will send the message that the US is not serious about helping to stabilize Afghanistan – a message that would embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin further. What she does not seem to recognize is that America’s deteriorating ties with Russia – a key conduit for US military supplies to Afghanistan – could undercut its basing strategy.

The US is clearly convinced that a continued military presence in Afghanistan is in its interests. But what would it mean for Afghanistan, a country that has long suffered at the hands of homegrown militant groups and foreign forces alike?

Afghanistan has been at war since 1979, when Soviet forces launched a disastrous eight-year military campaign against multinational insurgent groups. That intervention – together with the US and Saudi governments’ provision of arms to Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet guerrillas through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency – helped spread militancy and terrorism, which the subsequent US military intervention has kept alive. As a result, Afghanistan is now at risk of becoming partitioned along ethnic and tribal lines, with militia- or warlord-controlled enclaves proliferating.

In short, foreign involvement in Afghanistan has so far failed to produce positive results. That is why Afghanistan’s political and security transition would be better served by focusing on three key internal factors:

·         Free and fair elections that are widely viewed as reflecting the will of the Afghan people to chart a peaceful future.

·         The ability of Karzai’s successor to unite disparate ethnic and political groups – a tall order that can be filled only by a credible and widely respected leader.

·         The government’s success in building up Afghanistan’s multi-ethnic security forces.

How the April presidential election plays out is crucial. If threats and violence from the Taliban prevent too many Afghans from casting their vote, the legitimacy of the outcome could be questioned, possibly inciting even more turmoil, which Afghanistan’s fledging security forces would struggle to contain.

To be sure, the security forces have, so far, mostly held their ground, deterring assassinations and keeping Kabul largely secure. But they have also failed to make significant gains, and US plans to cut aid will make progress even more difficult. Unable to sustain the current force with reduced aid, the Afghan government will have to try to make it “leaner and meaner.” Whether it will succeed is far from certain.

That only increases the pressure to maintain a foreign military presence, even though it is unlikely to bring peace to Afghanistan. In fact, the risk of becoming locked in a protracted, low-intensity war against militancy and warlordism is likely to outweigh any geopolitical advantages that the US would gain from military bases in the country. After all, the terrorist havens and command-and-control centers for the Afghan insurgency are located in Pakistan – undercutting the US military effort to rout the Afghan Taliban since 2001.

All of this points to a clear conclusion: Afghanistan’s future must finally be put in the hands of Afghans. Outside resources should be devoted to building the governing capacity needed to keep the country united and largely peaceful.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

(c) Project Syndicate, 2014.

Averting a second cold war


001ec949c22b128eb91d2aThat we live in a world of rapid change has been confirmed by the way recent developments over Ukraine have transformed international geopolitics in just a few weeks. The looming cold war triggered by the U.S.-supported putsch in Kiev that deposed Ukraine’s constitutional order and by Russia’s muscular riposte, including annexing Crimea, portends the advent of a new era.U.S. President Barack Obama’s new sanctions approach toward Russia indeed sets the stage for a potential clash between Western democracy and what American ideologues call “Putinism.”

The geopolitical tensions, military deployments and strident rhetoric point to the risk of preemptive moves and miscalculations sparking an accidental confrontation. We need only to recall how a spiral of actions and counter-actions led to World War I a hundred years ago.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s action in annexing Crimea violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity in breach of international law, even though it followed a referendum in this historically Russian region, where the majority of residents are indisputably with Russia.

Let us, however, not forget that the U.S. and NATO have flagrantly and repeatedly contravened international law in the past 15 years. It’s a long list — the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without U.N. Security Council mandate, the overthrow of Moammar Gahdafi’s regime through aerial bombardment, the aiding of a still-raging bloody insurrection in Syria, and renditions and torture of terror suspects. The U.S. National Security Agency’s mass surveillance program also disregards international law.

An international system based on the rule of law cannot be good unless norms and rules are respected on all sides. Yet power often trumps international law. Neither the U.S. nor Russia respects international borders. America, for example, invoked its Monroe Doctrine to intervene, among others, in Panama, Chile, Cuba, Nicaragua, Grenada, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

International law tends to take a back seat when a major power asserts a right to protect vital security interests. Indeed, when a great power needs a threat to justify its intervention in another state, it invariably finds one. There is thus a long political history of world powers quoting international law to others but ignoring it when it comes in their way. The Ukraine case illustrates the international law of convenience.

Yet it is difficult to see how Russian, American or European interests can be advanced by the ominous face-off over Ukraine, which has helped shift the international spotlight from Asia’s festering fault lines and territorial feuds to the new threat to European peace. The showdown, unless defused, is likely to spur significant shifts in geopolitical equations and policies.

For example, the latest developments leave less space for the U.S. to pivot toward Asia but compel Moscow to embark on its own pivot to Asia, particularly China, to promote energy outflows and capital inflows.

With both Obama and Putin actively seeking to woo China on Ukraine, the likely big winner from the turn of events is the country that has been relentlessly expanding its borders ever since it came under communist rule in 1949.

China’s geopolitical gains will solidify if the U.S. jettisons — as appears likely — its post-Cold War policy of seeking to influence Russia’s conduct through engagement and integration into global institutions. The U.S. is closing the door to Russian accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and effectively ousting Russia from the Group of Eight by making it the Group of Seven again — an action that can only accelerate that institution’s creeping irrelevance in international relations.

A slippery slope to greater sanctions would clearly signal a U.S. shift to a new Russian policy of selective containment and engagement. Such a shift would be accompanied by an intellectual and normative thrust to present the new policy as vital to rein in an autocratic and ambitious Russia — as if heralding the return of a Cold War-style ideological battle between autocracy and democracy to Europe. But with communism now dead in Russia, America’s ideological war would target “Putinism.”

The demonization of Putin is ironic, given that the Russian leader pursued a pro-Western policy in the initial years after he came to power. For example, he closed down Russian military bases in Cuba and Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, and voluntarily supported America’s Afghanistan invasion. Only after his extended overtures went unreciprocated — with the U.S. instigating “color revolutions” in some ex-Soviet states and expanding NATO to the Baltics and the Balkans — did Putin adopt a more nationalistic course.

Yet the new U.S. sanctions approach is premised on a need to check Putin’s capacity to utilize state instruments like military power and energy leverage to block states in Russia’s periphery from moving closer to the West. America is likely to bolster such frontline states, including by transferring military hardware, training and integrating their forces, and placing U.S. systems on their soil. NATO countries are already being urged to cut their reliance on Russian energy supplies.

Obama seems determined to use the tool of sanctions to subtly undermine the Russian economy, including by targeting key businessmen, entities and sectors in Russia and by encouraging a flight of capital and talent from Russia. There is also a push to bar Western firms from aiding Russia’s military modernization in any way.

This punitive approach, however, would not preclude Washington from cooperating with Moscow on issues where bilateral interests overlap. After all, such cooperation occurred even during the height of the Cold War, as in establishing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Still, seeking to economically squeeze Russia and isolate it internationally would mean a strategic boon for China, just as the Soviet Union’s sudden collapse opened the way for Beijing to rapidly increase its geopolitical space globally. Beijing will work to exploit Western sanctions against Russia for its own benefit, including securing Russian energy on favorable terms and gaining greater access to the Russian market for its goods.

America’s only genuine long-term rival now is an ascendant China, which is rapidly accumulating economic and military heft. By contrast, Russian military power today pales in comparison with Soviet might, with Obama admitting Russia is not America’s top geopolitical rival.

If a new cold war is to be averted, Ukraine’s neutrality must be guaranteed. Ukraine should remain neutral between NATO and Russia — a sort of a strategic, sovereign buffer, just as Tibet was before China gobbled it up. Such a diplomatic solution, while ensuring European peace, would also contribute to Asian and international security. Otherwise, a full-blown ideological war will generate a wide geopolitical fallout, stoking greater tensions and increasing risks of miscalculation.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

(c) The Japan Times, 2014.

How China gains from a U.S.-Russia face-off

Japan Times, March 8, 2014

us-russiaThe U.S.-backed putsch that deposed Ukraine’s constitutional order and triggered the Russian military intervention in the Crimean Peninsula has shifted the international spotlight from Asia’s festering fault lines and territorial feuds to the new threat to European peace. The crisis over Ukraine cannot obscure Asia’s growing geopolitical risks for long.

In fact, the clear geopolitical winner from the U.S.-Russian face-off over Ukraine will be an increasingly muscular China, which harps on historical grievances — real or imaginary — to justify its claims to territories and fishing areas long held by other Asian states. Whether it is strategic islands in the East and South China Seas or the resource-rich Himalayan Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, China is dangling the threat of force to assert its claims.

China will gain significantly from a new U.S.-Russian cold war, just as it became a major beneficiary from America’s Cold War-era “ping-pong diplomacy,” which led to President Richard Nixon’s historic handshake with Mao Zedong in 1972 in an “opening” designed to employ a newly assertive, nuclear-armed China to countervail Soviet power in the Asia-Pacific region. Since the 1970s, the U.S. has followed a conscious policy to aid China’s rise — an approach that remains intact today, even as America seeks to hedge against the risk of Chinese power sliding into arrogance.

A new U.S.-Russian cold war will leave greater space for China to advance its territorial creep in Asia.

Asia’s geopolitical risks were highlighted recently by the comments of both Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who noted that Britain and Germany went to war in 1914 despite being economically interdependent in the same way Japan and China now are — and Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III, who compared China’s territorial creep with Nazi Germany’s expansionism.

Two fault lines in particular are putting Asia’s sustained rise at risk, with the adverse geopolitical trends carrying significant ramifications for global markets.

With Asia’s political integration badly lagging behind its economic integration, one fault line is represented by the widening gap between politics and economics. Asia is the only continent other than Africa where political integration has failed to take off.

The other fault line is represented by the so-called history problem — or how the past threatens to imperil Asia’s present and future. Historical distortions and a failure to come to terms with the past have spurred competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms. Asia must find ways to get rid of its baggage of history so as to chart a more stable and prosperous future.

Respect for boundaries is a prerequisite to peace and stability on any continent. Just as Russia’s Crimean intervention challenges that principle, renewed attempts in Asia to disturb the territorial status quo are stirring geopolitical tensions and fueling rivalries.

Aquino, drawing an analogy between China’s territorial assertiveness and the failure of other powers to support Czechoslovakia against Hitler’s territorial demands in 1938, pointedly asked in a New York Times interview last month: “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’?”

At the root of the rising Asian geopolitical tensions is the fact that Asia is coming together economically but not politically. Indeed, it is becoming more divided politically. Even as the region’s economic horse seeks to take it toward greater prosperity, its political horse is attempting to steer it in a dangerous direction.

This dichotomy is a reminder that economic interdependence and booming trade by itself is no guarantee of moderation or restraint between states. Unless estranged neighbors fix their political relations, economics alone will not be enough to stabilize their relationship.

The slowing of Asian economic growth underscores the risks arising from this fault line. The risks are heightened by Asia’s lack of a security framework, with even its regional consultation mechanisms remaining weak.

That the risks posed by Asia’s new fault lines are serious can be seen from the situation that prevailed in Europe 100 years ago. Europe then was even more integrated by trade and investment than Asia is today, with its royal families interrelated by marriage. Yet Europe’s disparate economic and political paths led to World War I.

Abe, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, was thus right to warn that economic interdependence cannot by itself prevent war. But by implicitly comparing China with pre-1914 Imperial Germany, Abe sought to gain the moral high ground by depicting Japan as a democratic state that, like Britain a century ago, is seeking to checkmate the expansionist ambitions of a rapidly rising authoritarian power.

The paradox is that China, with its aggressive modernization strategy, appears to be on the same path that made Japan a militaristic state a century ago, with tragic consequences for the region and Japan itself.

Japan’s Meiji Restoration (1868 to 1912) created a powerful military under the national slogan “Enrich the Country and Strengthen the Military.”

The military eventually became so strong as to dictate terms to the civilian government. The same could unfold in China, where the generals are becoming increasingly powerful as the Communist Party becomes beholden to the military for retaining its monopoly on power.

China only highlights the futility of political negotiations by overtly refusing to accept Asia’s territorial status quo. After all, frontiers are significantly redrawn not at the negotiating table but through the use of force, as China has itself demonstrated since 1949.

Yet, U.S. President Barack Obama’s repeated warnings to Moscow over Crimea, including holding out the threat to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically, contrasts starkly with his silence on China’s aggression, including its seizure of the Scarborough Shoal and the Second Thomas Shoal, and its establishment of an air-defense zone extending to territories it covets but does not control.

Obama has not said a word on these Chinese actions, even though they targeted U.S. allies, the Philippines and Japan. Unlike Ukraine, these are countries with which the United States has mutual defense treaties.

Obama’s “pivot” to Asia —rebranded as “rebalancing” — remains more rhetorical than real.

Make no mistake: Asia’s resurgent territorial and maritime disputes underscore that securing Asian peace and stability — like in Europe — hinges fundamentally on respect for existing borders. Unless that happens, it is far from certain that Asia will be able to spearhead global growth or shape a new world order.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of “Asian Juggernaut.”

Asia’s emerging democratic axis


The nascent entente between Asia’s richest democracy and its largest was powerfully showcased by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s presence as the chief guest at India’s Jan. 26 Republic Day, just weeks after the historic Indian tour of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. Abe returned home with an invitation for Japan to join Indian-sponsored naval exercises with the United States and to invest in infrastructure development in India’s sensitive northeast, a sizable slice of which China claims.

The ascent of an increasingly assertive and revanchist China is beginning to trigger geopolitical realignments in Asia, in keeping with balance-of-power theory. The new bonds between a politically resurgent Japan and a strategically transforming India are an important example of this trend.

A Japan-India democratic axis, with U.S. support, can potentially reshape the Asian strategic landscape and block the rise of a Sino-centric Asia.

Deepening the strategic collaboration between Asia’s second- and third-biggest economies, however, must await the outcome of India’s national election by May. Like Japan before Abe’s return to power in late 2012, India currently is weighed down by its domestic politics. A rudderless India indeed is in search of its own Abe — a clearheaded, determined and dynamic leader to head its next government.

abeAbe, an admirer of India, has been the main driver of the Indo-Japanese entente, investing substantial political capital in forging closer ties on the recently articulated premise that these relations hold “the greatest potential of any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world.” In his 2007 book “Toward a Beautiful Country: My Vision for Japan,” Abe said it would not surprise him if “in another decade, Japan-India relations overtake Japan-U.S. and Japan-China ties.”

In fact, it was during Abe’s first stint as prime minister in 2006-07 that Japan and India unveiled their “strategic and global partnership” — a significant milestone that set in motion the rapid expansion of bilateral cooperation. In a 2011 speech in New Delhi, Abe said: “A strong India is in the best interest of Japan, and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India.”

Today no other leader of a major power underlines the centrality of building strategic bonds with India as Abe does.

The fact is that Japan has gone from aiding China’s economic rise through technology transfers and generous Official Development Assistance (ODA) to trying to balance China’s emergence as a military threat. Japan has emerged as India’s critical source of capital and commercial technology. India overtook China a decade ago as the largest recipient of ODA, which is currently funding more than 60 Indian projects.

China has absorbed much of Japan’s emerging-market investments, but Japanese investors are now beginning to increasingly view China’s rising labor costs and political muscle-flexing as significant risks. After years of focusing on China, Japanese firms are seeking to moderate the risks by tapping the markets in India and Southeast Asia. In this context, India — with its vast domestic market and large, young and cheap labor force — is seeking to position itself as Japan’s investment partner of choice.

An ongoing shift in Japanese foreign direct investment has turned Japan into India’s largest source of FDI among major industrialized nations.

The number of Japanese companies operating in India has almost doubled over the past five years. Bilateral trade could reach $25 billion this year, roughly double the level four years ago, thanks to a 2011 comprehensive trade pact that aims to remove duties on most goods.

India’s human capital and Japan’s financial and technological power can be a good match to propel India’s infrastructure development and great-power aspirations, as well as catalyze Japan’s revival as a world power. There is clear potential for strong synergies.

At a time when China barely disguises its ambition to carve out an Asian dominion, the logic for Indo-Japanese strategic collaboration is no less compelling. Referring to “changes in the strategic environment” — an allusion to the rise of China as a muscular, authoritarian great power — Japan and India pledged in their common statement to work for “freedom, democracy and rule of law” and “contribute jointly to peace, stability and prosperity.”

Abe’s push for closer strategic bonds with India is part of his broader strategy of “proactive pacifism” to put discreet checks on any unbridled exercise of Chinese power. He, however, has had to deal with a tottering government in India.

Discussions on Japan’s offer to sell its ShinMaywa US-2i amphibious search-and-rescue aircraft, for example, have made little headway, although further talks are scheduled for March. Similarly, despite the two countries forging an alliance to develop rare earths so as to reduce their dependence on China for these vital minerals, the planned joint production in India has still to begin. Toyota Tsusho completed building a rare-earths processing plant in India’s Odisha state last year but remains locked in a price dispute with the state-owned Indian Rare Earths Limited.

New Delhi has eagerly sought a civilian nuclear deal with Japan, similar to the one it clinched with the U.S. in 2008. At a time when public sentiment in Japan against nuclear power is growing, the Abe administration has little incentive to conclude such an accord with a lame-duck Indian government facing an almost-certain election rout. Consequently, three rounds of talks in the past seven months have failed to produce even a draft accord.

Still, the level and frequency of bilateral engagement has become extraordinary in recent years. Every year, the two countries hold a summit, several ministerial-level meetings, and a 2-plus-2 dialogue involving senior officials from their foreign and defense ministries. India holds a 2-plus-2 dialogue with no other nation and an annual summit with only one other country — Russia.

The fact is that Japan and India have moved from emphasizing shared values to seeking to protect shared interests, including through joint naval exercises. Their emphasis is on holding high-quality military exercises involving plausible scenarios. Japan is to join this year’s Indo-U.S. “Malabar” naval maneuvers in the Pacific. The last such trilateral naval exercises occurred in 2009. In extending the invitation to Japan for this year’s exercises, Abe’s Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, declared that, “Japan is at the heart of India’s Look East policy.”

In the next phase, Japan-India collaboration will likely extend to missions in space. Both India and Japan have formidable space capabilities. While Japan has sophisticated rocket and satellite capabilities for both civilian and military use, India has developed and placed in orbit Asia’s largest fleet of satellites for remote sensing and communication purposes. After its unmanned lunar mission, India, with a new Mars mission, has overtaken China’s efforts in space, with an Indian spacecraft currently on its way to the red planet.

New institutional mechanisms for collaboration indicate that the role of personalities as drivers of the partnership will gradually become less important. However, if the entente is to ensure a pluralistic, stable Asian order and help transform Asian geopolitics, India and Japan need to add greater strategic and economic bulk to their ties.

A Tokyo-New Delhi duet must lead the effort to build Asian power equilibrium and safeguard vital sea lanes in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Arming India into dependency

The government-to-government weapon contracts between the U.S. and India, with no competitive bidding or transparency, are deepening India’s import dependency without arming it with a decisive edge.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindu, January 14, 2013

The blossoming of ties with the United States has become an important diplomatic asset for India in recent years. Yet the heady glow of the much-ballyhooed strategic partnership helped obscure prickly issues that arose much before the Devyani Khobragade episode. In truth, the Obama administration’s reluctance to accommodate Indian interests on major issues, coupled with the fundamental challenge of managing an asymmetrical relationship, has created fault lines that are testing the resilience of the partnership.

One aspect of the relationship, however, has thrived spectacularly — U.S. arms sales to India. In just a few years, the U.S. has quietly emerged as India’s largest arms supplier, leaving Russia and Israel far behind. This development is linked to the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear deal. Although it remains a dud deal on energy, with little prospect of delivering a single operational nuclear power plant for years to come, it has proved a roaring success in opening the door to major U.S. arms sales. The 2005 nuclear agreement-in-principle incorporated a specific commitment to ramp up defence transactions.

The booming arms sales — rising in barely one decade from a measly $100 million to billions of dollars yearly — have seemingly acquired an independent momentum. Nothing better illustrates this than the fact that, at the height of the Khobragade affair, India, far from seeking to impose any costs on America, awarded it yet another mega-contract — a $1.01-billion deal for supply of six additional C-130J military transport aircraft. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the White House last September, among the gifts he took for President Barack Obama was a commitment to purchase $5 billion worth of new arms.

Today, India’s largely one-sided defence relationship with the U.S. is beginning to look akin to its lopsided ties with Russia, with weapon sales serving as the driving force. However, unlike the torpid Indo-Russian non-military commerce, the two-way Indo-U.S. trade has quadrupled in just seven years from $25 billion in 2006 to about $100 billion in 2013.

Still, few Indians are raising the key questions: How are India’s security interests being advanced by substituting the corrosive import dependency on Russia with a new dependency on the U.S., without progress to build a domestic arms-production base? What makes the strategic partnership “special,” given that Washington also has special relationships with India’s regional adversaries — a security alliance since 2004 and strategic partnership since 2006 with Pakistan, and a “constructive strategic partnership” with China since 1997 that predates the strategic partnership with India? Is a relationship locking India as a leading U.S. arms client sustainable in the long run?

Let’s be clear: India can never emerge as a major international power in a true sense, or acquire a military edge regionally, if it remains dependent on imports to meet even its basic defence needs. The capacity to defend oneself with one’s own resources is the first test a nation must pass on the way to becoming a great power.

Ominously, a still-poor India has emerged as the world’s biggest arms importer since 2006, accounting for 10% of all weapons sold globally. Such large-scale imports might suggest that India is pursuing a well-planned military build-up. In truth, such imports lack strategic direction, given the absence of long-term political thinking and joint tri-service planning and command. They are being made in a haphazard manner, although any imported weapon makes India hostage to the supplier-nation for spares and service for the full life of that system.

The rising arms imports, far from making India secure, are only exposing new gaps in its capabilities to decisively win a war. The inveterate dependency burdens Indian taxpayers, forcing them to subsidize foreign military-industrial complexes. Worse still, defence transactions remain the single largest source of kickbacks for India’s corrupt and compromised political elites. This factor alone explains why India has failed to replicate in the conventional-arms sector its impressive indigenous achievements in the fields where imports are not possible — the space, missile and nuclear-weapons realms. Consider the glaring paradox: India surprised the world by launching a spacecraft to Mars, yet it still imports rifles.

For the U.S., displacing Russia as India’s largest arms supplier has been a diplomatic coup. Rarely before has America acquired a major arms client of such size so rapidly. The U.S.’s India success indeed parallels what happened in the early 1970s when Egypt switched sides during the Cold War, transforming itself from a Soviet arms client to becoming reliant on American arms supplies. The difference is that unlike the perpetually aid-dependent Egypt, India buys weapons with its own money.

With U.S. military spending slowing and other export markets remaining tight, American firms are eager to further expand arms sales to India. The fact that the U.S. now conducts more military exercises with India than with any other country creates a favourable political milieu for its defence firms to aggressively push their wares for sale. Even so, the troubling lack of competitive bidding or transparency in the arms deals — all clinched on a government-to-government basis — has become conspicuous. In the one case where India invited bids — to buy 126 fighter-jets — American firms failed to make it beyond the competition’s first round.

The annual value of India’s arms contracts to the U.S. already surpasses American military aid to any country other than Israel. Diplomacy, to be effective, must be backed by leverage and cross-linkages to minimize the weaker side’s disadvantages. Yet New Delhi has not tried to leverage its contracts either to persuade the U.S. to stop arming Pakistan against India or to secure better access to the American market for its highly competitive information-technology and pharmaceutical companies, which are facing new U.S. non-tariff barriers. India’s new frontier of dependency has emerged even as the U.S. bolsters Pakistan with generous military aid.

To be sure, the U.S. signed a four-point declaration of intent with India last September to move beyond the sale of complete weapon systems to co-production through technology transfer. Translating that intent into practice won’t be easy, though. According to the joint declaration, efforts to identify specific opportunities for collaborative weapon-related projects will be pursued in accordance with “national policies and procedures.” But if U.S. policies and procedures do not evolve in the direction of facilitating such collaboration, the declared intent will remain little more than pious hope.

The declaration clearly sought to pander to India’s desire for a less inequitable defence relationship. By dangling the carrot of India being upgraded to the same level as America’s “closest partners,” the declaration also peddled a catchy slogan excitedly lapped up by the Indian media. The U.S. is now willing to co-produce some smaller defensive systems with India, such as the Javelin anti-tank missiles. Such restricted technology transfers, the U.S. believes, will pave the way for securing additional multibillion-dollar contracts to sell large readymade weapons to India.

Significantly, U.S. arms to India fall mainly in the category of defensive weapons. Russia, by contrast, has transferred offensive weapon systems to India, including strategic bombers, an aircraft carrier, and a nuclear-powered submarine. Will the U.S. be willing to sell high-precision conventional arms, anti-submarine warfare systems, long range air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, and other conventional counterforce systems that could tilt the regional military balance in India’s favour?

Another issue relates to the strategic benefits from a closer defence relationship. True, such a relationship will have a countervailing value vis-à-vis China. Yet, it is also true that America has a deeper engagement with China than with India. Indeed, China is now central to U.S. economic and strategic interests. This fact helps to explain why the Obama administration has chartered a course of neutrality on territorial disputes between China and its neighbours, shying away from holding even joint military exercises in Arunachal Pradesh.

A wake-up call for Asian states that rely on the U.S. as their security guarantor was Obama’s inaction on the 2012 Chinese capture of the Scarborough Shoal, located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. America’s indifference to its commitment to the Philippines under their Mutual Defence Treaty emboldened China to effectively seize a second Philippine-claimed shoal. This is proof that despite its “pivot” toward Asia, the U.S. won’t act in ways detrimental to its close engagement with China. Obama’s foreign policy bears a distinct transactional imprint.

A wise India would consider declaring a moratorium on arms purchases from all sources to give itself time to strategize its priorities and clean up its procurement system. A moratorium of just three years will save the country a whopping $20 billion without compromising national security. With non-traditional threats — ranging from asymmetric warfare in the form of cross-border terrorism to territorial creep through furtive encroachments — now dominating India’s security calculus, procurement of more mega-weapons to meet traditional security challenges must wait until the nation has added strategic direction to its defence policy.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

(c) The Hindu, 2014.

The International Misrule of Law

  examines two recent cases indicating that China and the United States are the world’s leading rogue states.

A Project Syndicate column internationally syndicated.

Houston presentationOn the face of it, China’s recent declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) extending to territories that it does not control has nothing in common with America’s arrest and strip-search of a New York-based Indian diplomat for allegedly underpaying a housekeeper she had brought with her from India. In fact, these episodes epitomize both powers’ unilateralist approach to international law.

A just, rules-based global order has long been touted by powerful states as essential for international peace and security. Yet there is a long history of major powers flouting international law while using it against other states. The League of Nations failed because it could not punish or deter such behavior. Today, the United States and China serve as prime examples of a unilateralist approach to international relations, even as they aver support for strengthening global rules and institutions.

Consider the US, which has refused to join key international treaties – for example, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (which has not yet entered into force), and the 1998 International Criminal Court Statute. Indeed, unilateralism remains the leitmotif of US foreign policy, and this is also reflected in its international interventions, whether cyber warfare and surveillance, drone attacks, or efforts to bring about regime change.

Meanwhile, China’s growing geopolitical heft has led to muscle-flexing and territorial claims in Asia that disregard international norms. China rejects some of the same treaties that the US has declined to join, including the International Criminal Court Statute and the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (the first law to establish rules on the shared resources of transnational rivers, lakes, and aquifers).

Indeed, despite their geopolitical dissonance, the world’s most-powerful democracy and its most powerful autocracy have much in common when it comes to how they approach international law. For example, the precedent that the US set in a 1984 International Court of Justice (ICJ) case filed by Nicaragua still resonates in China, underscoring that might remains right in international relations.

The ICJ held that America violated international law both by supporting the contras in their insurrection against the Nicaraguan government and by mining Nicaragua’s harbors. But the US prevented Nicaragua from obtaining any compensation by vetoing UN Security Council resolutions that called for enforcement of the ICJ’s judgment.

China still hews to Mao Zedong’s belief that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Indeed, while China ratified UNCLOS, it then reinterpreted the provisions to justify cartographic aggression in the South and East China Seas. Worse still, China has refused to accept the UNCLOS dispute-settlement mechanism, thereby remaining unfettered in altering facts on the ground. The Philippines has filed a complaint against China with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. China, however, has simply refused to participate in the proceedings, as if it were above international law.

Whatever the tribunal’s decision, China will simply shrug it off. Only the Security Council can enforce an international tribunal’s judgment on a noncompliant state. But China wields a veto there and will block enforcement of an adverse ruling, just as the US did in the Nicaragua case.

China’s new ADIZ, while aimed at solidifying its claims to territories held by Japan and South Korea, is similarly provocative, because it extends to areas that China does not control, setting a dangerous precedent in international relations. Japan has asked its airlines to ignore China’s demand for advance notification of flights, even if they are merely transiting the new zone and not heading toward Chinese territorial airspace.

By contrast, the US has advised American carriers to obey China’s prior-notification demand. There is a reason for this: Although the prior-notification rule in American policy applies only to aircraft headed for US national airspace, in practice the US demands advance notification of all flights through its ADIZ, regardless of their intended destination.

If other countries emulated the example set by China and the US by establishing unilateral claims to international airspace, a dangerous situation would result. Binding international rules are thus imperative in order to ensure the safety of fast-growing commercial air traffic. But who is supposed to take the lead when China and the US have pursued a unilateralist approach on this issue?

Now consider the case of the Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, whose treatment India’s national security adviser called “despicable and barbaric.” True, as a consulate-based diplomat, Khobragade enjoyed only limited diplomatic immunity under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. But this convention guarantees freedom from detention until trial and conviction, except for “grave offenses.” Can a wage dispute qualify as a “grave offense” warranting arrest and humiliation? Would the US tolerate similar treatment of one of its consular officers?

The harsh truth is that the US interprets the Vienna Convention restrictively at home but liberally overseas, in order to shield even the military and intelligence contractors that it sends abroad. A classic case involved the CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who fatally shot two men in 2011 in Lahore, Pakistan. Claiming that Davis was a bona fide diplomat with its Lahore consulate, and thus enjoyed immunity from prosecution, the US accused Pakistan of “illegally detaining” him, with President Barack Obama defending him as “our diplomat in Pakistan.”

Despite a widely held belief that the current international system is based on rules, the fact is that major powers are rule makers and rule imposers, not rule takers. They have a propensity to violate or manipulate international law when it is in their interest to do so. If universal conformity to a rules-based international order still seems like a distant prospect, an important reason is that countries that should be leading the charge still so often behave like rogue states.

(c) Project Syndicate, 2013.